Driving west along the Pennsylvania Turnpike from Harrisburg to rural Washington County, sign after sign pitted energy companies against environmentalists. An evil-looking clown leered down at passing drivers above the words: “I still believe in global warming. Do you?” Then there was another: “Wind dies. Sun sets. You need reliable, affordable, clean coal electricity.” Yet another featured a picture of Yoko Ono and the message “Would you take energy advice from the woman who broke up The Beatles?”
The billboards were the handiwork of a corporate lobbyist named Rick Berman. His campaign depicted anti-fracking activists, who often called themselves fractivists, as a bunch of rich outsiders. In his world, hypocrites like Robert Redford, who flew private, and kooks like Yoko Ono didn’t understand the give-and-take long established in Appalachia between extractive industries and the communities that relied on them for their livelihoods.
If you followed the highway far enough, turned off the exit for Lone Pine/ Amity, then took a right past the truck stop, you’d wend your way into a steep, unnamed valley. Loren “Buzz” Kiskadden lived at the base of that valley, in a spot known locally as the Bottoms, or Dogpatch. On its 26 acres, the Kiskadden family had run a junkyard from the mid-60s until 2006. An ex-car-thief and recovering heroin addict, Buzz had been the neighborhood bad boy, “always driving around on something,” he told me later.
Buzz was clean now, but chain-smoking cigarettes. He and his brothers were known to drive their junkyard’s tow trucks around the town of Washington, the county seat, removing any breakdowns left on the roadside. Instead of repairing them, they stripped them for parts.
Of all of Buzz’s scrapes, his most notorious took place in 1995, when he’d led half a dozen police officers on a high-speed car chase over the county’s roads and back to Dogpatch. When Buzz came to a stop, one policeman tried to wrestle him out of the car, but Buzz slid out of his grip and the officer went over the side of an embankment along with Buzz’s vehicle. The officer wasn’t seriously injured, and Buzz spent five years fighting the case, ultimately serving six months in Washington County Jail. That era seemed over now. Thieving was a young man’s game, and time, above all else, had rendered Buzz and his brothers largely harmless.
At 21, Grace had gotten married and bought the land on which she and her children now lived. Over the past 47 years, Grace’s three sons and four daughters had helped her run the garage and chop shop, removed radiators and batteries, and salvaged scrap metal from old school buses, cars, and trucks. According to Grace, some vehicles had been there as long as 50 years, and they weren’t going anywhere soon. The bottom had fallen out of the family business. Along with a bakery delivery truck, the carcasses of pickups and school buses rusted on the banks of Banetown Creek. There were also a rarely used bulldozer, high lift, and backhoe.
“Car business is no different from mining or steel,” Grace said. “It’s gone downhill.”
On the phone one day in 2011, Buzz told his neighbor Beth Voyles that his water had gone bad. He’d gone to fill up the kiddie pool for Junior and gray gunk had come out of the hose. Junior was Seth, the 5-year-old grandson of Buzz’s girlfriend, Loretta Logsdon, and Buzz loved the boy. Seth, his sister, and his mother stayed from time to time in Buzz’s trailer, along with Loretta. The smell from the water was god-awful: rotten eggs and raw sewage. If the water was bad, what did that mean for Buzz’s vegetable garden? Every summer, he fed himself and his neighbor Mr. Gray his prized tomatoes. He wasn’t sure if those tomatoes were safe anymore.
Beth, who had had water problems of her own, told him to call the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and Range Resources, the Texas-based oil and gas company that was drilling nearby, and have both come out to test his water. Buzz was upset. He’d lived in that trailer for five years, and spent most of his time on its couch smoking cigarettes with the air conditioner on and the TV blasting.
“I’ve never had any problems with my water before,” he said.
There was no way to prove whether or not this was true. Buzz, like Beth and another of their neighbors, Stacey Haney, had never had his water tested before the drilling began. Without that pre-drill test to serve as a baseline, Range could argue that any chemicals in the water were already present. A pre-drill was essential in proving that oil and gas had contaminated the water. With a legacy of coal mining, which brought with it methane contamination, there were pre-existing problems. And even if not, industry claims could introduce enough doubt into a case to defeat it.
Without water, Buzz wouldn’t be able to stay on his land. He’d lost his job, and couldn’t afford to buy even limited amounts.
Since Pennsylvania doesn’t require monitoring of private wells, there was no record of what was in Buzz’s well – though it sat on a floodplain next to a creek that sometimes overflowed its bank. In addition to the rusted-out car hulks that littered the creek banks, the fields were full of old tires, which Grace Kiskadden was trying to dispose of. “They’re an eyesore,” she said later.
Without water, Buzz wouldn’t be able to stay on his land. Unlike Stacey and Beth who bought bottled water at Walmart to drink, he couldn’t afford to buy even limited amounts. He’d lost his job making pots and pans at the Dynamet factory, and his health had long been causing him trouble. Since his late 30s, he’d suffered from diabetes. He took pain medication every morning, along with six or seven other pills for arthritis in his knees, shoulder, and back; another for a heart condition; and yet another for gastric trouble.
When Beth got off the phone with Buzz, she shared his concerns with her lawyers John and Kendra Smith. The Smiths listened, but they could tell Buzz would make the worst kind of plaintiff. His health alone, as well as his history of addiction and crime, would undermine his credibility in court. Still, he seemed to have a legitimate grievance, and they thought his test results might help them establish a clearer pattern of harm for their clients. They agreed to speak to him.
The following day, June 2, 2011, Buzz Kiskadden called the DEP and Range, and then moved a few hundred yards up Banetown Road to live in a cinder-block room in his mother’s basement. Grace had begun to worry that maybe her water or air had something bad in it, too. The summer before, although she said she’d never had a headache in her life, she had a fainting spell. Although Grace and her son resembled each other, with their paper-pale skin, icy blue eyes, and thin white hair, the two were nothing alike. Grace didn’t take medication, not even aspirin. To treat ailments like colds, she relied on vinegar, honey, and dandelion tea. Soon, test results would reveal elevated levels of benzene in her urine, too.
On June 6, 2011, a DEP water inspector came out to Dogpatch to conduct water testing. Just standing over Buzz’s well, he could see there were problems. It wasn’t properly sealed and because it sat on a flood plain, the top of the well was submerged every time Bane Creek rose over its banks. Anything could get inside.
The oil and gas rush, which had arrived in southwestern Pennsylvania about a decade earlier, was only the latest iteration of a centuries-old boom and bust cycle of resource extraction here at the edge of Appalachia. Oil had been discovered in Pennsylvania in 1851. Since then, successive layers of oil, gas, and coal had been removed from the hills, forests, and farmland of western Pennsylvanians who’d profited little off the harvest of carbon. Instead, they’d been left paying the bills that the fossil fuel industry left behind, particularly those related to coal. When fracking arrived in the first years of the 21st century, it brought with it the promise of income for farmers signing mineral leases and seemingly lower environmental costs.
Range Resources was one of a handful of midsized oil and gas companies operating in the region, and among them, it had a good reputation. Like other companies, Range employed dozens of subcontractors at its oil and gas well sites, which spanned several acres. These sites tended to be at the peaks of hills, where it was easiest for operators to sheer off the top and build a vast, flat space for trucks, gas wells, and the large industrial ponds needed for storing the fluids. These fluids, some harmless and others not, were pumped by the millions of gallons more than a mile into the earth and out horizontally for another mile or two under pressure approaching that of a shotgun blast. The force of the fluid fractured ancient layers of shale rock, freeing bubbles of natural gas and returning them to the surface, along with radioactive waste stored in the earth for millennia. But the potential problems related to the drilling process stretched far beyond the actual fracking, which was called, rather technically, “a post-drilling well stimulation technique.” The problems began with the practical issues linked to hundreds of diesel trucks a day rattling up and down dirt roads, kicking up dust laden with particulates.
Layers of oil, gas, and coal had been removed from the hills, forests, and farmland of western Pennsylvanians who’d been left paying the fossil fuel industry’s bills.
Buzz and his grandkids weren’t feeling well, so his neighbor Stacey Haney, a nurse whose children had been sickened by what she believed were environmental toxins related to Range’s fracking operation, decided to pay them a visit. Stacey, like others in the two neighboring towns of Amity and Prosperity, had stayed away from the junkyard over the years. Buzz’s car chase with the state troopers and other such stories were ready fodder in the small community. But one morning late that summer of 2011, she drove down to the Bottoms to see if she could help.
She parked near the rusted-out bakery truck and a charred outbuilding and mounted the concrete block that served as a porch to knock on the aluminum door. Buzz was sitting on the couch. When Stacey asked how he was doing, he told her that he and the kids were having trouble breathing and their stomachs were sour. The trailer reeked of cigarette smoke; an army of amber prescription bottles sat on a TV table. An oxygen tank leaned against the couch. In this room alone, there was evidence of many factors that could be sickening Buzz and his family. Stacey knew that, but she also knew what she and the kids had been through, and she was beyond being skeptical. And there was the water: gray and filled with sediment like hers. But Buzz had to keep cooking and washing with it when he wasn’t staying in his mother’s basement.
His physician, Dr. Christiansen, who worked at the orthopedic hospital along with Shelly, had been treating Buzz for an injured shoulder. When Buzz’s tests came back as part of his pre-surgical workup, the results alarmed the physician. “His blood work came back really off the scale – arsenic, benzene, a lot of chemicals we’d never seen in anyone’s blood and I had to look them up,” he told me later.
Knowing that Buzz couldn’t afford water, Dr. Christiansen tried to get Range Resources to supply the family a water buffalo, a large plastic tank that local residents relied on to bathe or water their farm animals, but to no avail. Eventually, he prescribed Buzz a gym membership, which Range lawyers would bring up later during a deposition as evidence that Buzz couldn’t be so sick if he could make it to the gym. Dr. Christiansen corrected them. He wanted Buzz to be able to shower with clean water. “I’ve prescribed gym memberships before,” he told me, “but never with the hope of getting someone out of the house.”
For the rest of the summer and into the early fall, Buzz used his water sparingly as he awaited test results. Finally, in September, a letter arrived from the DEP. His water was high in inorganic salts and also in methane, two elements that can be associated with drilling, but not necessarily so. “We strongly recommend that you maintain a vent on your water well,” the DEP wrote. Although there were problems with Buzz’s water, the letter went on, these problems were “not the result of Range’s actions, or any other gas well related activities.” The contaminants might be leaching from the old buses, boats, and cars heaped in his junkyard.
According to this letter, Range owed Buzz nothing and neither did the DEP. (A state inspector told him to pour a half-gallon of bleach into his well at least once a month to manage the rotten-egg smell.) Buzz Kiskadden understood that he wasn’t going to get a water buffalo. Despite the poor quality of his water, he’d have to keep buying his own at Walmart, or go without. There was more to the letter that he didn’t understand, so he called the Smiths, who were now representing him.
Studying the DEP’s letter, Kendra Smith could see that in addition to the methane and salts, there were other problems with Buzz’s water. It contained several known constituents of frack fluid. The DEP admitted as much in the letter – “Very low concentrations of several organic compounds were reported in the DEP sampling: butyl alcohol, chloroform, and acetone.” But the DEP suggested, inexplicably to Kendra, that these three were actually absent and the results were lab error. To Kendra, this was too convenient an explanation. From reading the raw data, she couldn’t understand how they’d write off the chemicals as lab error. (When she later deposed the head of the DEP’s lab, Kendra found she was right: There was no lab error.) And she could find no scientific basis for the DEP’s suggestion that the junkyard was poisoning the well.
This would be the first case in Pennsylvania history to contest that the DEP’s findings were wrong and that oil and gas had contam-inated someone’s water.
Kendra told her husband and fellow lawyer, John, that she was prepared to challenge the DEP’s determination, which meant filing suit against the state. They had done this before, filing a suit on Beth Voyles’s behalf against the DEP for neglecting its job. As in that case, the Smiths would have to pay the costs out of pocket, and if they did win, they wouldn’t make any money. Yet theirs would be the first case in Pennsylvania history to contest that the DEP’s findings were wrong and that oil and gas had contaminated someone’s water. Bringing such a case against the DEP, let alone winning it, was going to kick off a shitstorm, Kendra told John.
On a mid-August afternoon in 2013, Kendra was sitting on the rock wall in her backyard, studying the magenta blossoms on her weigela shrubs, when her phone rang: Buzz Kiskadden was calling. Buzz liked Kendra; he trusted her plainspoken approach.
He had cancer in his blood and a tumor the size of a softball, he told her.
By the following summer, Range’s stock price had hit an all-time high of $93 per share. The abundance of accessible shale gas was exceeding even the wildest predictions, and Range was first in terms of production and acreage in the Marcellus, the gas-rich shale deposit that stretched from New York state to West Virginia and contained enough natural gas to power America for a decade.
To Kendra and John Smith, it came as a shock in September 2014 when Range got hit with the largest environmental penalty in Pennsylvania history to date. The DEP was fining the company $4.15 million for six leaking waste ponds and ordered Range to close five of them for good. All were in Washington County, and the Yeager pond, less than a mile uphill from Buzz’s property, was one of them. This extraordinary news arrived while the Smiths were preparing Buzz’s fight for clean water. Privately, one Range attorney told the Smiths that if it weren’t for their doggedness in bringing Buzz’s case, the leaks would never have come to light.
John Smith hoped that all of these public findings against Range would give Buzz’s case a better shot as it came before the Environmental Hearing Board. The EHB was a trial court that functioned like a court of appeals: People and businesses argued in front of a judge against findings issued by the DEP. To the Smiths’ knowledge, however, no one in Pennsylvania had ever brought a case before the EHB in which a landowner charged that oil and gas had contaminated his water and that the DEP had gotten it wrong. The term of art for their challenge was “a case of first impression.” As such, Kiskadden v. DEP and Range Resources was likely to garner a lot of local attention.
Of all the judges they might have drawn, Thomas Renwand, the diminutive and fiery chairman and chief judge of the Environmental Hearing Board, seemed like a lucky selection. Since his appointment in 1995, Renwand had established a long record of standing up to the DEP, and under his guidance, the EHB had agreed to hear the Kiskadden case, which the Smiths saw as a good sign. Even hearing the case required courage. John Smith believed they had a chance at getting Buzz clean water. Kendra, the skeptic, was less certain.
“I don’t think the court has the guts to go our way,” she told me. To find in Buzz’s favor could open up a flood of angry citizens alleging that the DEP had made mistakes with their water, too.
The 20-day trial was held downtown in Pittsburgh’s Piatt Place, a swanky office complex only an hour’s drive but a world away from Buzz’s junkyard. On one side, Michael Heilman, the DEP attorney, sat next to John Gisleson, a skilled litigator working for Range. The company had asked to join the suit to defend its interests, and Gisleson was there, as he saw it, to dismantle the Smiths’ case. By discrediting Buzz’s claims, Gisleson hoped to call into question the fundamentals of the Smiths’ larger suit against Range.
The lawyers argued there was not enough evidence to prove that Range’s actions had contaminated Buzz’s water. “The Department is not here to argue to the Board that the Department has regulated this well site as effectively as we could have,” Heilman said in his opening statement. “We haven’t. We are not here to argue that Range Resources is in full compliance with the law or its permits and regulations. It hasn’t done that. We are not even here to argue that Loren [Buzz] Kiskadden has great water quality; he doesn’t. What we are here to say is even if all the coincidences [advanced] by the appellant are true, it does not follow that gas well activities polluted appellant’s well.”
One Range attorney told the Smiths that if it weren’t for their doggedness in bringing Buzz’s case, the leaks would never have come to light.
In response, Kendra laid out the specific timeline of how problems at the site affected her client’s water. To underscore her facts, she called the DEP’s Vince Yantko to the stand and walked him through a litany of mishaps – from the leaks and spills, to the holes in the liners, to the fact that the leak detection zone was designed incorrectly. She laid out the DEP’s failure to enforce its regulations – how it hadn’t taken the leaking pond out of use or examined its liner for rips. She also detailed the large-scale, failed remediation that removed 2,125 tons of soil. Then she demonstrated to the court how the soil test results had been manipulated, altered to read to a lay observer as though there had always been contaminants in that field, when that wasn’t the case.
It wasn’t enough, however, for the Smiths to prove these facts, which were already a matter of record. To meet their burden of proof, the Smiths had to make a definitive case for how the industrial chemicals at the top of the hill, at point A, flowed half a mile southwest to the valley bottom, where Buzz lived, at point B. The crux of the argument lay in how water moved underground. As the weeks of the hearing went on, a DEP hydrogeologist argued that the water flowed north and away from Buzz. The Smiths’ experts argued the opposite. The underground springs on the hillside flowed downhill and to the southwest. What’s more, after the pond had leaked, the DEP had mandated that Range install monitoring wells. Those results showed that ethylene glycol had somehow penetrated the ground west of the waste pond to a depth of 59 feet. Not only did that indicate contamination, it also showed which way the water was moving. And the contaminants weren’t only moving underground. The poisoned springs also ran into a stream that belonged to the commonwealth called Tributary Number Four, according to the Smiths’ experts. This stream ran past Beth Voyles’s and Stacey Haney’s properties, and then down to Buzz.
Range’s attorney, John Gisleson, called the Smiths’ expert findings into question. It was too simple to say that if chemicals were found at the site and in their clients’ water, that was definitive proof of contamination, he argued. Furthermore, the ratios found in Buzz’s water were different from those up on the hillside. And when it came to oil and gas contamination, particularly in regard to salts, those ratios mattered. There were also plenty of other potential sources of contamination lying around Buzz’s junkyard at the Bottoms. Buzz’s water may have been undrinkable, but that wasn’t Range’s fault.
The Smiths thought Giselson had proven nothing – simply revealed more of what he didn’t know. At one point, according to the Smiths, he’d had to ask Kendra for help in reading test results. And as the lengthy hearing drew to a close, the Smiths felt it had gone well. Still, given the stakes involved for the state and the possible flood of cases that would follow a court decision in their favor, Kendra wasn’t so sure. She was also cognizant of the costs. She’d raced her experts through their testimony, trying to get them off the stand as quickly as possible, since most charged by the hour. The Smiths were never going to be paid back for what Buzz’s trial cost them, since victory in that suit wouldn’t come with damages. Victory for the Smiths would mean, simply, getting Buzz clean water.
At the end of the trial’s last day, John and Kendra carried their stacks of files out of Piatt Place to the parking lot in darkness. It was nearly 8 p.m. by the time they finished loading, and there were no other cars in the indoor lot. Under the green fluorescent lights, Kendra started to cry. In 20 years of marriage, John had never seen her cry at work. Not once. But Kendra felt in her marrow that they were going to lose, and Buzz wasn’t a railroad or another corporate client. He was an indigent man dependent on the state for help that the state refused to give him. John put his arms around Kendra.
“Did we do enough?” she asked him.
“We tried the best case we could try,” he replied.
On June 12, 2015, Buzz lost his case. In his verdict, Judge Renwand wrote that despite “extensive evidence of leaks and spills,” he couldn’t rule out the possibility that the rotting hulks of cars, boats, and school buses in the junkyard, as well as the horse farm across the road, had contaminated Buzz’s water, not Range Resources. Tom Shepstone, a contributor to “Energy in Depth,” a pro-industry blog run by the Independent Petroleum Association of America, concluded that the verdict “once more proves the junkyard is [the] best final resting place of not only cars, but also of false fracking accusations.” The Smiths appealed right away, but their appeal was denied.
Yet the court also had hard words for Range. “Range’s reckless business practices, combined with its repeated failure to report problems at the Yeager Site are irresponsible to the extreme, bordering on reprehensible. The list of leaks and spills at the Yeager Site is troubling,” the appeals court wrote in their decision not to hear the case. “Although there is little dispute that the activities at the Yeager Site impacted the environment and contaminated the soil and adjacent springs, the issue before this Court was whether Range’s activities impacted Kiskadden’s water well.” And on that specific issue, six out of seven judges affirmed Renwand’s decision. There were simply too many potential sources of contamination at the junkyard to be sure where the chemicals had come from. Furthermore, the Smiths hadn’t proven a definitive connection between the Yeagers’ hillside and Buzz’s home. There would be no retrying the case.
One judge on the appeals panel, however, disagreed. The Smiths had established the necessary link between the two sites, she argued in her dissenting opinion. They’d presented what she called “volumes of empirical data showing a highly positive (if not nearly perfect) correlation.” In doing so, the Smiths had met their burden of proof: A preponderance of evidence clearly showed that Range Resources was responsible for contaminating Buzz’s water. But as only one judge among six, she held a minority opinion.
“I’m up against more than the law here,” Kendra said in response. “There is no legal reason why this should be denied. If this was an uphill battle before, now it’s Everest.”
After Buzz lost, he renounced whatever small purchase he’d had on the world. “No one’s going to stop this,” he told me one afternoon when he agreed to leave the cement-block room where he slept in his mother’s basement to speak to me. Often, when I showed up, he simply refused. His mother, Grace, was wary, too. For them, there was no advantage in talking, especially now that Buzz had lost his case. Still, Grace was polite and patient enough to entertain my visits, and sometimes she was able to coax Buzzy, as she called him, from his bed.
“They’re making too much money from it,” he said when he finally arose. “That’s what it’s all about: money. Greed.”
“I’m not against the U.S. making progress, but not at the price of ruining our water. Water is the most precious thing we have.”
He’d stopped raking a razor across his stubbled chin, and his long beard and white mane gave him the look of a prophet. The methane levels in his trailer, and the lack of water, made it impossible for him to live down in the hollow, so he’d moved up the ridge into his mom’s while he was undergoing chemotherapy for his leukemia.
“I’m depressed. I don’t go nowhere unless I have to,” he said. When the leukemia looked to be claiming his life, he’d wanted to stop the treatments. “About gave up on the doctors,” he said. Yet in the end, he persevered, and that perseverance led to good news: The blood-borne cancer had gone into remission. Buzz didn’t really think it was the doctors who’d done it – he thought it was God. But instead of feeling gratitude, he felt defeated. Even after he was given a clean bill of health, he didn’t return to the things he’d loved, riding dirt bikes and fishing. He didn’t even watch TV. He just sat in his room in the dank basement.
His old girlfriend Loretta Logsdon had recently died, but Buzz was still close to her grandson, Junior. Buzz had angered Junior’s mother by forcing her to move out of the trailer too. “I made them move out because I didn’t want them to get sick the way I did. They didn’t understand it. I don’t want anyone living there.” The issue had driven a wedge between them, and now he didn’t get to see Junior anymore, which deepened his hopelessness.
“DEP can’t get me nothing,” he said. “Hauling water now. Me and my mother pay the water. Right now, we’re getting it at Walmart.” With Buzz still weak and Grace turning 80, the sheer weight of hauling water was just as much a concern as the cost. They had to buy one-gallon jugs, instead of five, because neither could lift the heavier ones. Grace, who still relied on dandelion tea as a cure-all, was trying to get Buzz to eat natural foods.
“My mom is trying to get me to eat broccoli raw. I can’t eat that shit. I don’t have no teeth,” he said. He no longer believed that the system could be changed. In fact, he’d never thought the Smiths would win.
On another afternoon, when Buzz refused to get out of bed and I sat waiting for him in the basement, Grace spoke to me of her disappointment.
“I can’t understand how we had papers proving what was in our water, and we still lost,” she said. “I feel we’ve been done an injustice. I’m not against the U.S. making progress, but not at the price of ruining our water. Water is the most precious thing we have.” But that was the way it went now in America. The forces they were up against were simply too big. This wasn’t a matter of fixing the political system. “According to the Bible, we’re not supposed to vote. God puts who he wants on the throne. God permitted this to happen because the U.S. has gotten so far from him.”
As Grace Kiskadden saw it, this was the beginning of the end of the world, as foretold in the book of Revelation.
“The water will become so poisoned, you can’t drink it,” she said. In Revelation 8:11, God embitters a third of the rivers with wormwood, and the men who drink this water die.
“I just hope we’re raptured out of here,” she said.
This article was adapted from “Amity And Prosperity: One Family And The Fracturing Of America,” by Eliza Griswold, which was published in June by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2018 by Eliza Griswold. All rights reserved.